Traveling Classroom Foundation
Wednesday March 20th 2019

The High Plateau

Along the dry north coast of Crete, farming seems to consist mostly of olive groves and vineyards, which survive with little irrigation. The major agricultural production of the island is in the highlands, where rain and winter snow saturates the soil. We planned to spend a day on the Lasi­thi plateau, the most productive farming area on the island, to see some greenery lacking in the coastal hills.

After breakfast, we headed east to Malia town and then inland towards the mountains. The road was an unnerving series of switchbacks without guard rails or curbs along steep cliffs. I was relieved when we descended from the mountains into a green farming region. My relief was short-lived when we reached the village of Kera, and I checked the map. Then I realized this was a rather small mountain valley – not the great plateau. On the far side of the valley, we began to ascend into even higher mountains.

At one switchback, we came upon a roadside attraction such as one might expect to find at a shabby gas station in Death Valley. The so-called “Homo Sapiens Museum” was clearly intended to attract customers into the garish taverna built next to the road. We stopped for a few minutes to snap photos of windmill pumps in the parking lot, but had no interest in anything the “museum” might offer.

These new windmills are part of a roadside attraction

Continuing our ascent, we finally reached the high pass at Seli Ambelou, which was flanked by a line of ruined windmills standing like sentinels along the windblown ridge. In the old days, these mills would have ground flour from wheat grown in the farmlands below. Now, commercial mills do that far away in the city.

Old grain mills on a ridge at Seli Ambelou

Behind us lay Kera in the valley far below, and I could trace the winding road that brought us to this summit. Before us was the Lasithi plateau spread out like a huge patchwork quilt bordered on the far side by the stony flanks of a mountain range, including Mt. Dikti – the tallest of them.

Lasithi Plateau with Mt. Dikti in the distance

This area has always been fertile, due to the rich alluvial soil that washes down from the mountains. Because the plateau is essentially a bowl, it collects all the rain and snow melt needed to water the crops. Spring flooding occurs regularly, so all the villages are safely perched on high ground circling the plain.

Fertile and well watered plateau farmland

In summer, when dry winds blows through the mountains, windmills draw the ground water up to the surface again. The windmill pumps were designed by the Venetians in the 15th century, and have been used ever since. They are more utilitarian than the windmills we saw at the roadside attraction, but there are fewer than in the past. Before modern technology came to the plateau, windmills were essential for irrigation. Diesel-driven pumps now do the job more efficiently (but with far less style).

We made a loop around the plateau visiting towns and caves (see Dark and Mysterious Places for the cave episodes). All the villages are what one might expect in a pastoral region: rustic, clean and quietly industrious. But each one has its own character. I especially liked the little village of Ayios Konstanti­nos, which seems to be devoted to weaving. Driving slowly along a one-lane main street, we passed a number of weavers at their looms, working in front of tiny shops that displayed their wares.

A weaver works at her shop in Ayios Constantinos

We thought it might be prudent to consider how to get down the mountainside before darkness came. There must be a route easier than the way we came. On the map we traced a road that passed through Mesa Potami, Exo Potami, and down towards Neapoli, the former capital of the Lasithi province. We reasoned that, because potami means “rivers,” this might be a river valley route – therefore easier.

The last windmill as we leave the plateau

We drove along a ridge, where we saw the last of the grain mills on this side of the plateau, and then we began our descent. The road did follow a river out of the mountains. However, we had been very wrong about everything else. The river bed was at the bottom of a deep gorge, along the edge of which the road teetered precariously. The only thing less distressing about our return trip was that we were forced to drive verrry slowly all the way down.

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